Beside the dose of data concealment from government agencies, the propagandistic treatment in favor of China decreases, being the collateral effects disinformation to citizens and uncertainty about the beginning of the COVID-19 vaccination rollout.
By Ana Julia Niño Gamboa
The hasty efforts in approving the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine for administration in Venezuela – let us remind that the permit for use was granted a few hours before the drug reached Venezuelan soil – does not correspond to the cold treatment the gesture received, barely a news item born and dead on the same day. This adds to the government’s lack of commitment to inform on the terms of this exchange. How much will these supplies cost the country? Are they first doses? Is its administration approved as part of Phase 3 clinical trials or does it go directly to a non-massive vaccination plan? These are examples of the many questions floating in a vacuum because the government does not provide information.
What is certain is that, since March 1, 2021, the date on which 500,000 doses of the Asian vaccine arrived in the country, neither official websites nor the public and the private media supporting Chavismo provide consolidated information on the administration of the drug in any campaign. Furthermore, it is unclear whether it was actually a donation. In spite of the fact that, in October 2020, the participation of Venezuela in Phase 3 clinical trials was announced, nothing else was known regarding the vaccine until March 1, 2021. Additionally, a week later, an obscure headline by state-owned Venezolana de Televisión (VTV) announces: “Teachers from 250 schools in Caracas received the first dose of the Chinese vaccine”.
The trademark systematic opacity of Nicolás Maduro’s administration is one of the facets of his communication policy; another one is the evident propaganda it disseminates for Russia and China as allies in an anti-imperialistic path against the United States. This tactic has been deployed by the government in these times of COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, if we want to find out about public data related to, for example, vaccines, one way is to follow the propaganda trail.
We witnessed government bots enabled on Twitter to boost Russia’s Sputnik V, a fervent nod to its relationship with Moscow despite the 10 million vaccines – most undelivered – promised since December 2020. Five months later, it is still nowhere near a lone half million. However, that is no obstacle to insistently extolling that relationship. Conversely, the media treatment received by the alleged donation of half a million Chinese vaccines from Sinopharm is poor. An unusual cold chain was applied to this action. This is a concerning fact because it marks a difference between one ally and the other. Unfortunately, caught in the middle are public data of interest for citizens and regarding the lives of all Venezuelans.
The evidence of what we report here is based on a review of 10 sources, including official websites, some media outlets, and Xinhua agency. It covers the period from March 1 to May 3, 2021.
This study aims to put on record an aspect of the relationship between the governments of Beijing and Caracas that has apparently entered a resting phase. We gathered this information from the sequence of events that is supposed to have occurred since the delivery of 500,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine on March 1, 2021. We started from the need to find evidence of the treatment of public information by government bodies. On the other hand, we followed up on the difference in propaganda efforts deployed regarding China against such efforts regarding Russia. For this purpose, we explored ten sources distributed among official websites as well as three public media and one private pro-government outlet, plus the content of Chinese agency Xinhua. The period under study runs from March 1 to May 3, 2021.
On this occasion, in addition to following up on the Sinopharm vaccine, we looked into the background of the relationship developed by the governments of both nations on a narrative with obvious propagandistic strokes. In them, the prevailing discourse decries U.S. imperialism against which both governments are allied. This rhetoric tries to justify the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of the Venezuelan government, diverting the responsibility for the crisis to the alleged blockade that prevents it from buying medicines and supplies due to the measures ordered by the U.S. Treasury Department. It also serves as an argument to bypass the Constitution and promote the so-called Anti-Blockade Law, tailored to the opacities of an administration that denies the constitutional right to be informed.
Table 1: Media outlets
|CORREO DEL ORINOCO||correodelorinoco.gob.ve|
Table 2: Government sources
|MINISTRY OF HEALTH||mpps.gob.ve|
|PATRIA (FATHERLAND) SYSTEM||covid19.patria.org.ve|
|MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS||mppre.gob.ve|
|OFFICE OF THE VICE PRESIDENT||Vicepresidencia.gob.ve|
|MINISTRY OF ECONOMY AND FINANCE||mppef.gob.ve|
|MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATION AND INFORMATION||minci.gob.ve|
The inquiry is focused on official sources and on the coverage of the media selected. Based upon them, we try to understand what they reveal and also on what they remain silent, a design that allows us to detect a pattern of behavior and treatment of public information by those in power. Moreover, in this case, we looked into the propaganda praising Chinese aid.
This is a research with a qualitative, documentary perspective. Our corpus focuses on the data that we can gather in the official sites of the national Executive, in the news items published by the media selected, both local and foreign.
The reading of the sources is conducted online. To this end, we have made use of the Google search engine and sometimes we have employed its advanced search tool. Our instrument of information gathering and data construction is based on content analysis, with initial categories aimed at determining whether or not the media has any news on the subject under investigation and, if it does, what the focus given is.
In this phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, attention has been focused on access to vaccines to mitigate the effects of the contagion that seems unavoidable. Therefore, when the first 500,000 doses of Sinopharm arrived in Venezuela, the expectation was centered on the hope of finally knowing the possible start date of a vaccination rollout.
Obviously, the political interests between both governments take a back seat to the urgency of the citizens to receive the vaccine. Notwithstanding, on the shoulders of the public administration still rests the constitutional duty to inform the citizenry. They even have the duty to manage the expectation of access to the medication appropriately. The government owes the country an explanation, an information campaign regarding the situation, as well as the challenges and difficulties involved in the vaccination.
Issues that a sufficiently serious information campaign should address include: Capacity to guarantee the cold chain required for the vaccines, supply of syringes, cotton, alcohol, healthcare staff, appropriate transportation to other cities. Data is required to identify priority groups for vaccination, or the existence of an equitable plan on the part of the government to get the vaccine beyond the ruling elite’s inner circle. All of these issues are relevant. A committed government would activate risk communication as advised by the World Health Organization (WHO), that is, the weighted index of trust among those who know (healthcare staff, scientific academies), those who decide (the government and health authorities) and those affected (the people, the entire citizenry). This deployment of information also involves the media.
Risk communication involves three main aspects that must work together: i) Talking: Information on the nature of the event and the protective measures that people can take must be explained quickly; ii) Listening: First responders, experts, and authorities must quickly assess and understand the fears, concerns, perceptions, and opinions of those affected. This requires the use of social science, as well as expertise and community participation methods; and iii) Managing rumors: Finding a way in which misinformation can be detected and addressed appropriately and without delay.
In the specific case of the Chinese vaccine, there is no mention of its inclusion in known rollouts. The government produces numbers that do not add up, adding doses or vaccines that fail to differentiate whether they refer to clinical trials or to virtually secret rollouts known in closed circles. Even in the assumption of selection by means of the Patria (Fatherland) platform (website for entitlements to regime loyalists), there has been no notice of the modality, of the hierarchy of cases. However, mandatory registry on this site was portrayed as the only way to be vaccinated, which is tantamount to political discrimination based on the fear of death. At a time when the virus is on the rise, the population is still in need of a minimum vaccination rollout to reduce both their anxiety and the disease. Worse, an already vaccinated president speaks of remaining locked up because the drug does not save us, which is ultimately an attempt at an excuse for the mediocre and politicized way this issue has been addressed by the administration of Nicolás Maduro.
The other issue we are interested in contextualizing is the cold shoulder given on the media to the gesture from China, especially when compared against the constant propaganda in praise of Moscow. This has nothing to do with such difference looking unfair. It happens to be striking in two ways: The evident low profile of Chinese officials in the country, a distancing that we see as calculated; on the other hand, although China surpasses Russian shipments in doses of vaccines, we notice a little interest in state-run media to give thanks. Is this a sign of coldness, a side effect of relations that have entered a resting phase? Will there be convalescence?
The review of the official media shows the following: First, the evidence that the public media are carriers of the government’s narrative, leaving aside serving society as a whole; secondly, the national Executive sites do not provide clear and verifiable data. The few news items on the Chinese vaccine are almost anecdotal, that is, mentioned in the context of any event in which Nicolás Maduro appears, or they are added to the inaccurate figures offered by the Minister of Health, mainly from the airport on the arrival of supplies; thirdly, the doses of Sinopharm donated by Beijing do not receive greater coverage, apart from the announcement of the arrival of the medicine and its administration in 250 schools in Caracas, without details on the number of teachers. It is even surprising that neither Xinhua news agency’s website nor its subdomain on that of the multi-state television channel Telesur contain any news on the drug.
The investigative proposal highlights the silence of the media examined, especially because, in the search for information, it was easier to find pieces that depict Russia favorably, despite the fact that its compliance with the agreement on the supply of vaccines is in question. Additionally, the impossibility to access more information on the agreements with China, especially the one related to the arrival of half a million doses of Sinopharm and the rather cold behavior of the local propaganda, raises several questions that will have to be answered eventually: Is this silence the result of a negotiation strategy? Is the deal going through an incubation period? Is the Chinese government more discreet than the Russian and Venezuelan governments? In any case, these questions do not dispel the suspicions that hover over these two nations. Both are betting on Latin America, not so much because they care about Latin Americans, but to displace U.S. influence in the region and expand their imperialist sphere of influence.
The behavior of the official media reviewed is just a glimpse at the communication policy implemented by the administration of Nicolás Maduro during the pandemic, especially regarding these issues related to its relationship with Beijing. As part of this strategy, it conceals information that is public in nature, undermines the constitutional right of access to information and seriously compromises the ability of accessing official sources encouraging the practice of journalism and the reduction of misinformation.
It has been proven that the political use of public media erodes democracy and impairs public debate. Apart from making good on the promise of communicational hegemony, it actually promotes informational disorder by encouraging the politics of rumor, of hoaxes. This imposes an “official truth” without society, scientific information, or journalism being able to count on an equivalent space to serve as a democratic counterweight.
We continue to assess as poor the management of this crisis by the authorities. It would be advisable to change this attitude and promote the synergy proposed by risk communication. Only information based on trust can counteract or mitigate the effects of misinformation.